What does it mean to be a band in a time where everything’s changing? British indie stalwarts Maximo Park have been around the block more times than you can imagine, experiencing the advent of social media while many an indie band came and went. On Friday (26 February) the trio release new album Nature Always Wins, and Jack Parker called up guitarist Duncan Lloyd to talk populism, new beginnings and the political elephant in the room.
Hey Duncan. How are you? Not too bad, yeah. It’s a bit like Groundhog Day but it’s been like that for everyone. Things are slowly starting to look slightly better.
In the UK you’re finding yourselves at the start of a potential way out of lockdown. How does that feel? It definitely feels positive. Obviously you hope that the same will happen everywhere at the same time, or that everybody catches up, but it certainly helps you see the future a little better. A few of our parents have been vaccinated now, as well as some vulnerable people we know, which eases the mind a bit.
Nature Always Wins is your new album. Tell me more about how it came to life, and what experiences fuelled writing. We started writing at the end of 2019 – before the pandemic hit – and we had been in touch with our producer Ben Allen. We’re fans of bands like Deerhunter and we know he also worked with Animal Collective. We really liked his production style; we’d tried to get together five or six years ago but it didn’t work out because Ben was moving cities, but in January 2020 he came to Newcastle. He hung out with us for a few days; we took him out for a curry and showed him around. In 2019 our keyboardist Lucas got married, left the band and made the big life choice of moving to Australia to start a family. We had three members left, so we got our heads together and decided that we were up for a challenge. At some points we actively encouraged Ben to play on some songs almost as if he was a member of the band, an idea he liked. We’d swap instruments and play each other’s parts which was good fun. He went back to the States and we were planning on flying to Atlanta to record in April 2020. Then the pandemic happened, and we wondered whether to put it on hold. Ben said that he could make it work from his side, though, so we tried it. Fortunately I was able to record the band to a degree, so I did most of the guitars and bass at my place. Tom, our drummer, lived in Liverpool at the time so he recorded his drums there, and Paul did his vocals at home. There was always the question of if it would work this way, but we took the basis of all our demos and rebuilt them using the energy we got from those songs. Ben would then, from his studio in the US, add his production flair and do stuff like re-amp my guitars or change little things here and there which felt right. His engineer Annie also added string parts, and after about a week and a half of this we’d nailed a method of working together. Normally you would stick to studio hours, but now I felt I could work day or night. I could be up till 2 or 3am and it gave me so much freedom.
Usually you’d be used to working with a producer up close and personal. How did having Ben all the way in the US impact the way you worked together? You’re so used to going in and being in this bubble for a while, and for us a producer really can become part of the group too. They’re there, listening to every aspect of a song. We tended to record parts and send them back and forth, and then we’d have weekly WhatsApp meetings and discuss what we’d do next. Instead of jamming the songs like we’d usually do we kept the songs very true to their original demos in terms of arrangement. The sounds became more sonically interesting, and I know that Ben was also listening in on a live stream when Thomas recorded his drums so that he could direct from afar.
Did recording everything home give the album a more introverted feel? More homely, perhaps. Yeah. The thing with Lucas leaving was that we didn’t want to lose the synth side to our music, so I found myself playing more keyboard myself. It adds more introspection in a way. On a track like Meeting Up you can hear that the keys had been done later at night; there’s a certain atmosphere to it. For Child of the Flatlands I wanted to write something quite different so that was new for me. There’s a lot more space to experiment on this album, whereas before with more band members we would be trying to fill up the space. I thought about creating more space and more atmosphere. You’re right, though; being at home helped because I was able to spend a few hours on one part without other people waiting on me. You’re free to explore more.
The album feels darker in places. Did the situation in the UK at the time of writing have much impact? Definitely. Lyrically it did for Paul, and with the UK being in a very weird place not just because of COVID but also because Brexit and how divided the country is it definitely had an impact. It feels as though people under 50 are now rocked by the fact that the country has left the EU thanks to an older generation and the rise of populism. There’s a negative feeling, and you could also see it with stuff like Trump in the US. Things have settled down a little bit now but people are still wondering about the future. Paul also became a Dad recently so he’s dealing with looking after a young daughter as well as her future. There’s a few universal themes on the record, and it’s definitely a less political album. There’s definitely a nod to the things happening in the UK, for example there’s a song related to Grenfell Tower. Yet that song also questions life. The whole thing with nationalism is: do you really need a flag to know who you are? People have been manipulated by anything and everything they’ve seen on social media, and it’s such a shame that people are picking sides and are more divided than ever.
Tell me more about the album’s visual side. What fuelled the artistic direction on Nature Always Wins? A close friend of ours – Laura Lancaster – is an artist in Newcastle and she does these amazing paintings. There’s something about family life and domestic or holidaying situations which feels so warped or fragmented. It all related to the topics and themes on the album, as well as the distorted time period in which we’re living. We wanted to do something more painting-related as we’d often gone for graphics, so we chose to get away from that and do something different. It’s like the start of a new chapter for the band now that Lucas has left, and it’s given us a new lease of life. There’s something quite fresh about the approach we took, and we also found it funny to have something almost like a uniform. A local friend designed work shirts so we hooked up with her for our live shows and press pictures. We wanted to look like a ‘traditional’ band in some way, wearing suits and playing around with what it can mean to be a band.
Maximo Park are an indie household name at this point. How important is staying relevant for a band of your stature in a world where so many new groups come and go? With relevance it’s tricky because every day there’s a new artist or band that people want to see. It was different when we started, the main difference being that there was less focus on finding people through the internet. People would go to gigs, and when we’d put out a 7” people would go to the record shop and buy it. Even though we’re an established group now there’s still a real DIY attitude to what we do. We still make and do a lot of things ourself. Being able to go out there and just have people come to the shows and buy the records is the most important thing for us when it comes to staying relevant, because people’s attention spans are being grabbed at by every part of the internet. It’s saturation. People’s perception of us hard to gauge from the inside, so we just concern ourselves with creating something people can feel uplifted by as opposed to trying to stay at the top or lead the group. We would be worn out if we tried to make the most relevant sounds possible. We have to be true to what we believe in and try and create something honest.
Yeah. And of course Maximo Park has grown alongside social media over the years. Even with this album we had to create more content. More videos, more pictures, more interactive stuff. A lot of musicians I know are introverts and like being on their own, so that whole feeling of having to be a ‘brand’ is weird. You have to be a whole marketable thing, which I do understand because the world is changing and you have to try and stand out.
Let’s cover the elephant in the room: Brexit. How do you foresee British bands being able to sustain themselves from now on, particularly in regards to touring? Once things start moving again, who knows. There’s been stuff going on in parliament about renegotiating aspects of the Brexit deal because they were so focussed on fishing and sovereignty. Britain already had sovereignty when it was part of the EU! It’s this whole rhetoric which we have to surpass. The creative people and people who go to shows will suffer; music helps so much with mental health and it’s a huge part of life. The more we band together and pressure the government the better. Hopefully the bigger voices from our industry will lend a helping hand too, and that could force a breakthrough. We also want to see European artists still coming this way. We don’t want artists from the EU to have to battle to come over here. So yeah, it’s going to be a big issue. It’s our livelihood!
Visas are also looking to be expensive for touring artists. It’s crazy that the government never agreed on this. There was an offer from the EU which they turned down and now MPs are asking the industry how everything works. Now, after Brexit, we have to explain to them what the problems are. None of this was discussed properly beforehand. I hope that both sides can get their heads together and sort this out.
The arts have been hit hard by COVID. What can the music industry learn going forward from this? People have been at home a lot and so live streaming has become a real focus. Streaming platforms are also not paying artists fairly, so apart from the artists who are doing really well all you’ll see is musicians saying, “hang on a minute, this isn’t a fair system”. If we can create something which we work for then something needs changing. If it was any other profession that got taken more serious then they wouldn’t have had that problem for us. It’s important that the lockdown has been able to highlight how much more focus people have been placing on these streaming platforms. They have a lot to answer for. You only have to look at one royalty statement to see 0.0004 cents per stream. How often would we have to get played to even afford a coffee? Thousands. Platforms like Bandcamp are positive, especially with them waiving their fees every first Friday of the month. Why can’t Spotify do the same? They know how difficult it is and they have the means the give artists a break and support them in a difficult time. Nature Always Wins is out on Friday (26 February).